Copyright and the Public Domain
Authors own the exclusive rights to their compositions. This is called a copyright, and the composition is protected for many years–even if the copyright is never registered with the copyright office. A composition is considered to be “intellectual property” The copyright may be sold, transferred, or inherited–but the copyright still endures. If any music or lyrics are still under copyright protection
- you CANNOT reproduce the music or lyrics
- you CANNOT distribute the music or lyrics either for free, for no profit, or for profit
- you CANNOT perform the music or lyrics in public
- you CANNOT play a recording of the music or lyrics in public–even if you own the CD
- you CANNOT make a derivative work or arrangement for public use in any form
Legally a copyright means that a musician, author, or artist has a “limited duration monopoly” on anything he creates. The US Constitution grants the government power “to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” (Article 1 Section 8, US Constitution). To legally enforce an author’s claim to his copyright, his work must be registered with the copyright office. Registering a composition provides public notification of copyright, and you cannot use the composition publicly unless you pay royalties–which can be substantial. If you use a song under copyright without the owner’s permission, you are subject to legal repercussions.
Fortunately, copyrights eventually expire and the owner has no exclusive rights. Also some composers renounce their copyright and give their music or lyrics to the public, either during their lifetime or at their death. All compositions which are not protected under copyright law are said to be in the public domain. If you can prove that a composition is in the public domain, you can arrange, reproduce, perform, record, or publish it. But you cannot just “know” a song is in the public domain or just “see” the name of the song in a book or on a list. You should use a public domain composition only if you have proof of public domain from a legitimate source.
United States Copyright Law
US copyright law is found in Title 17 of the United States Code and is administered by the US Copyright Office. ” Terms for Copyright Protection”, a U.S. Government publication, summarizes the current duration of copyright protection for published works as follows:
- Works created after 1/1/1978 - life of the longest surviving author plus 70 years - earliest possible PD date is 1/1/2048
- Works registered before 1/1/1978 - 95 years from the date copyright was secured.
- Works registered before 1/1/1923 – Copyright protection for 75 years has expired and these works are in the public domain.
The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act was signed into law on October 27, 1998. Prior to the Sonny Bono 20 year copyright term extension, copyright protection for works registered before 1/1/1978 was 75 years; therefore, compositions registered in 1922 or earlier entered the public domain on 1/1/1998. The 1998 copyright extension did not extend copyright protection from 75 to 95 years for songs already in the public domain so . . .
- The Good News - works published in the United States in 1922 or earlier are in the public domain even if they are not yet 95 years old.
- The Bad News – no new works will enter the public domain until January 1, 2019.
You can confirm the above information about public domain and copyright protection in “Extension of Copyright Terms“, Circular 15t, of the U.S. Copyright Office. Specifically the last paragraph of Page 3 states in part “Works published before January 1, 1923, have fallen into the public domain.” We suggest that you print this circular and keep it as part of your public domain research materials.
International Copyright Law
The Berne Convention is an international treaty standardizing copyright protection since 1886. In 1994 a “General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)” was signed by 117 countries, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) was created in Geneva, Switzerland, to enforce compliance with the agreement. GATT includes a section covering copyrights called the “Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property” (TRIPS) U.S. law was amended to be essentially consistent with GATT by the “Uruguay Round Agreements Act” (URAA) in 1994 and the “Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act” in 1998. Despite GATT, copyright protection varies greatly from country to country, and extreme caution must be exercised on all international usage of any intellectual property.
Rule of Thumb for Public Domain Music
- Works published in the United States with a copyright date of 1922 or earlier are in the public domain in the United States.
- Copyright protection outside the USA is determined by the laws of the country where you wish to use a work. Copyright protection may be 95 years from publication date, 50 to 70 years after the death of the last surviving author, or other criteria depending on where the work was first published and how the work is to be used.
Information from www.pdinfo.com/copyrt.php